Recently I finally got around to finishing Xenoblade Chronicles, a JRPG that originally released on the Nintendo Wii and was later re-released alongside the New Nintendo 3DS. The game was well received, currently sitting at 92 on Metacritic. Praise for this game came at a time when the Wii console was at its strongest, and also apart of the last few “hurrah”s of the system alongside Pandora’s Tower and The Last Story. After finally completing it seven years after the game’s initial release, while visually the game was stunning the rest of it wasn’t really as special as it was made out to be.
While saying that Xenoblade Chronicles wasn’t a great game may be going against an overwhelmingly positive look on the title, looking back objectively at it after all these years I find it hard to really say this game stood out aside from what it did with the Wii system. The gameplay was very much like an MMO, but it was single player. Combat had you focused on party synergy and utilizing everyone’s abilities in conjunction with one another. Although, aside from chain attacks (an attack in which all party members participated) you didn’t have control of your party directly. This made some combinations frustrating with all the additional debuffs and effects you could stack on enemies. For example, you could utilize an ability to make enemies vulnerable to falling, the following ability either done by yourself or a party member would then knock the enemy down. From there you could daze the enemy to extend a bit of your time to attack the vulnerable grounded enemy, or give yourself additional time to heal before the enemy gets back up. The AI from your party members wasn’t always at the ready to dish out these types of attacks, sometimes utilizing the combination move to knock the enemy down before they were ready to be toppled.
Combat really required a lot of your attention as you had to react to enemy movements to dodge area-of-effect attacks, and react with the ability to “see the future” with the Monado. This was a mechanic within combat that would appear when a devastating attack was on the way from enemies. It gave the player a moment to react to what was happening and potentially change the outcome of what would occur. While the combat had global cooldowns on some abilities for the characters, and individual cooldowns for other abilities it could take you out of the tense situation by creating a different feeling entirely as you have to wait until your abilities recharged. If an enemy was suffering from Topple status and was able to be knocked down and your knockdown ability wasn’t ready by the time they recovered you’d have to put the Topple status on the enemy again to make another attempt. So while your attacks had to be reactionary, you also had to plan ahead the strategy of the fight. There were plenty of systems that had to fit on the screen, and unfortunately not enough screen real estate to really work. I often fully zoomed out the camera to properly survey the battles, but the camera was poorly placed which made exploration difficult.
Party synergy was a big focus, and cheering on party members was an actual mechanic in the game. The closer characters became with one another the more their affinity grew, this was done by having the various members in your party cheering each other on for various actions. With affinity you’d get to unlock additional scenes for the characters to develop in, much like the dialog scenes from the Tales of... series. Some of these scenes gave you incentive to view them as they would give you special items for taking the time to unlock these “heart-to-hearts” as they were called in Xenoblade Chronicles. Heart-to-hearts delved deeper into the story of your characters and how they felt about each other and the various trials before them. It was additional story that you could take the time to see beyond the lacking story the main game had. Furthermore affinity could be built by having certain party compositions for the various quests. Some characters liked that you would help out other NPCs and as a result gain a boost in affinity.
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles follows a boy named Shulk on a journey of revenge for the death of one of his closest friends and quite frankly love interest. Fiora was her name and she was killed by a Mechon, the antagonist race of robots, but this Mechon had a face. These Mechon come from the Mechonis a robot titan, and Homs or “humans” like Shulk live on Bionis a titan that is basically life and earth. Taking the power of the Monado, a special sword that can cut through Mechon armor unlike any other weapon and help Shulk see the future, he vies to defeat the Mechon that killed his childhood friend/love interest. Shulk meets many different people that are affected by Mechon in some way. The story is odd in that it is a bland revenge story, no other reason to follow this group than to see some young adult get upset to a point where his blind rage and fury sets him on a path to murder as many robots as he can. All the while people treat this “Monado” like it’s some entity on its own.
Eventually you find out that the faced Mechon have people inside them, well they aren’t people anymore but mechanically rebuilt shells of their former human counterparts. Coincidentally you discover that Fiora is one of these Mechon pilots. So now your tale of revenge changes to a rescue mission to find Fiora. As if we’re keeping par for the course in ‘Anime Cliches’, you encounter bird people who are far more advanced than the humans and thus open a love triangle that has little to no impact as the character accepts that she will be second place. This occurs despite the fact that the game makes her seem integral to the story. They continue fighting to ultimately stop the Mechon from terrorizing Bionis and try to convince, from what we are lead to believe is the main antagonist, that both Mechonis and Bionis can live in peace. But the god residing within the main character is really not about that and destroys Mechonis revealing that everything on Bionis is food to keep him and it alive. The main character dies but doesn’t die because he basically becomes a demigod that can see the future without the Monado. Then fast forward to the fact that there are three Monados, you fight god, who isn’t really god but a human that was a scientist that wanted to create a perfect world. You then must choose to live a normal life or life as a god, you choose a life with no gods at all and you all live happily ever after.
While this is the most rushed version of the story, it ultimately doesn’t seem that the game wanted to stick with one theme at all and instead throw every possible trope into it. The story continued to get more and more complicated as time went on. One thing was consistent and that each and every character had a moment of growth by overcoming a self-doubt. Looking back, aside from the main character, everyone had their opportunity to overcome themselves. Reyn for example wanted to make sure that he could be there to protect Shulk. But Shulk kept getting stronger and stronger and Reyn was worried that eventually he wouldn’t be needed anymore, through the journey he meets Sharla and through her he realizes that his strength isn’t for one person that he can protect. But rather Reyn learns that with his strength he can still protect everyone, and will always be able to protect Shulk. Sharla learns to stand on her own strength and not need her lost love to protect her. Riki becomes the hero that his family always believed he would be, and proved to his home village that he was indeed a great hero. Dunban learns to share the weight of his responsibilities with his comrades, that he can rely on others just as others rely on him. Melia grows into a great and compassionate leader for her people, rising up to her role before she was even ready to take the responsibility of leadership.
The game itself was quite the grind, the gameplay didn’t really hook me to keep playing through to the end. However, the many plot twists as absurd and outlandish as they were kept me going. Each twist had me wanting to know more and by the time the story would get to a good climax it would remove that thought entirely and begin on a new plot point. The trouble I had was the difficulty in following the story properly, but in the end none of the plot really led up to the final moments of the game. It was as though each plot point was its own moment in time and passed without any true weight because the journey must go on. While the idea of revenge on this enemy was lost to me as they had but a pipe dream on how to achieve it, only revenge seemed to be the recurring force that kept the group going. My time with Xenoblade Chronicles was that of insanity as I constantly thought “This will get better…” only to be let down and repeat the cycle of some other plot point catching my attention. They did attempt to keep gameplay engaging with additional quests but they lacked any real story to care about as the quests generally relied on fetching things or killing things. A common RPG style trope, but as vast as this world was I really hoped to be delved into the world more. It’s clearly living and breathing and what I do affects the lives of all these people. Perhaps it due to the fact that the game is so large that much of it is filler to squeeze out more of the gameplay loop. Or perhaps that modern games have a better carrot at the end of the stick, the main incentive for these quests were usually achievements and rarely improved gear to utilize on your journey.
Achievements were available for unlocking in Xenoblade Chronicles, they would give you additional experience and items to help your progress. This was a little something extra to ease the grind of leveling up characters from the monotony of questing and battling. Otherwise the achievements in the game never really had any visual benefit to say, “I put forth the effort to go beyond what the game asked of me or played in a unique way.” It may be too much to expect a Wii game to go to these lengths, but why have the game go so far as to make you do these things without any other significant reward? Things like better weapons, maybe gear, things like this were missing from the rewards that you got from achievements, an incentive to keep me within the game world. Xenoblade Chronicles would consistently fall short in keeping my interest and doing achievements was merely a faster means of grinding.
Speaking of achievements, the crowning achievement of Xenoblade Chronicles is the fact that it is even running on the Wii. I think the game itself is an oddity, I constantly found myself asking “how was this even possible?”. The expansive world, the control in draw distance, the game is massive for a Wii title and should absolutely be celebrated for its technological achievement. The deep mechanics within the game with the affinity system, gem crafting, the sheer size of the entire game is astonishing. By today’s standards graphically it doesn’t hold up well at all and makes me wish that there were a proper HD upresing to truly do the game justice even by last generation standards. For someone like myself that appreciates the craft of game design I can say that I’m most impressed with how much power Monolithsoft drew out of the Nintendo Wii console. The sheer size of the game was a double edged sword as the game didn’t need to be that big. The vistas, dungeons, caverns, and open fields could’ve been condensed to make a better experience overall. Fast traveling within the game helped ease the lengthy treks throughout the world, but the world remained so big and asked so much of you with very little reward more often than not. Having a large game is great on paper, but you notice it a lot more if there really isn’t much to do within all that space.
Looking back at Xenoblade Chronicles for me the game wasn’t as interesting as it was made out to be. I think that the buzz around the title was a bit blown out of proportion. Considering that the Wii itself didn’t have many games for the Hardcore fan the bar wasn’t set particularly high. Again Xenoblade Chronicles is a technological achievement, but the gameplay is rather dull and often pretty boring. Exploring the game from an artistic standpoint was a marvelous adventure, but the story didn’t compliment the journey. I often think that the game was held back by the Wii, but at the same time it was right at home on the console. Had Xenoblade been released on the other consoles at the time I don’t think it would’ve got the right attention it deserved. That being said I still think that maybe a remaster on Switch, or even a PC release outside of emulating the game would be great to see. The game definitely deserves a chance, but definitely not for it’s gameplay. What was your experience with Xenoblade Chronicles, did you love it or disliked some aspects of the game?